Saturday, February 26, 2011

Poet Cam Scott asks, "What makes a good poem?"

In his blog "What Makes a Good Poem: A Hybrid Essay on Prejudices" for Trachodon magazine, Cam Scott wonders wonders what a good poem is.  I wonder--is that a legitimate question?  A mind exercise?  Moot point?  The end-all be-all quandary?

So far, the resulting comments, though few, are in accord: good sound, good language (albeit with an odd, I say, distaste for Latinate language), good imagery.  Nothing most poets don't already know and certainly nothing that I would disagree with, generally speaking.  But what about those good poems that don't rely necessarily on any of these requisites?  I think immediately of Merwin's "Elegy," about the only one-line poem I can think of.  It reads: "Who would I show it to?"  That's it.  No particular music (although it echoes the vowel sounds of the letter "O"), no imagery, no standout language.  The line is atonal, really.  It could be read flippantly, reverently, loudly, quietly?  Regardless of its ambiguity, "Elegy" strikes me as a good poem.

So while sound, image, language are important to the recipe for a poem, they must not be the alpha and omega of poetic goodness.  I wonder, with respect to Merwin's piece, how does content figure in?  I prefer to focus on craft, but it's hard to have one without the other so--.  And what about innovation?  Surprise?  Emotional trigger and depth?  Intellectual trigger and depth?  How does craft make possible these moments that allow elements of craft--which could have been run initially as language drills--to elevate the poem from mere exercise to something better?

More to come.  I'm hoping Cam, who happens to be an old buddy of mine, will continue to expound with me here and/or at his Cheek Teeth blog for Trachodon.


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